Small Town Daddy Dance by Mindy Klasky

Small Town Daddy Dance

Will she stay, or will he go?

Ballerina Kat Morehouse has returned to her hometown to recuperate from an injury. Between restoring her mother’s dance studio and the instant family of caring for her neglected niece, romance is the last thing on her mind.

Carpenter Rye Harmon is finally escaping the small town of Eden Falls, launching his own business. Nevertheless, he offers to help Kat at the studio, never dreaming he’s her unrequited high-school crush.

When a long-simmering family secret is revealed, this “opposite attracts” pair is sure to explode. But where will these star-crossed lovers fall?

Previously released as The Daddy Dance.

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CHAPTER ONE

Kat Morehouse pushed her sunglasses higher on her nose as the train chugged away from Eden Falls, leaving her behind on the platform. Heat rose in waves off the tiny station’s cracked parking lot. Plucking at her silk T-shirt, Kat realized for the first time since she’d left New York that solid black might not be the most comfortable wardrobe for her trip home to Virginia. Not this year. Not during this unseasonably hot spring.

But that was ridiculous. She was a dancer from New York—black was what she wore every day of her life. She wasn’t about to buy new clothes just because she was visiting Eden Falls.

Her foot already itched inside her walking boot cast. She resisted the urge to flex her toes, knowing that would only make her injury ache more. Dancer’s Fracture, the doctors had grimly diagnosed, brought on by overuse. The only cure was a walking boot and complete rest from ballet for several weeks.

Looking down at her small roller suitcase, Kat grimaced and reminded herself that she wasn’t going to be in Eden Falls for very long. Just time enough to help her family a bit—give her mother a little assistance as Susan nursed Kat’s father, Mike, who was recovering from a nasty bout of pneumonia. Take care of her niece for a few days while Kat’s irresponsible twin sister roamed somewhere off the beaten track. Look in on her mother’s dance studio, the Morehouse Dance Academy, where Kat had gotten her start so many years ago. She’d be in Eden Falls for five days. Maybe six. A week at most.

Kat glanced at her watch. She might not live in Eden Falls anymore, but she knew the train schedule by heart, had known it ever since she’d first dreamed of making a life for herself in the big city. The southbound Crescent stopped at one-thirty in the afternoon. The northbound Clipper would churn through at two-fifteen.

Now, it was one forty-five, and Susan Morehouse was nowhere in sight. In fact, there was only one other person standing on the edge of the parking lot, a passenger who had disembarked with Kat. That woman was tall, with broad shoulders that looked like they were made for milking cows or kneading bread dough. Her oval face and regular features looked vaguely familiar, and Kat realized she must be one of the Harmons, the oldest family in Eden Falls.

Shrugging, Kat dug her cell phone out of her purse, resigned to calling home. She tapped the screen and waited for the phone to wake from its electronic slumber. A round icon spun for a few seconds. A minute. More. The phone finally emitted a faint chirp, dutifully informing her that she was out of range of a recognized cell tower. Out of range of civilization.

Kat rolled her eyes. It was one thing to leave New York City for a week of playing Florence Nightingale in Eden Falls, Virginia. It was another to be cut off without the backbone of modern communications technology. Even if Kat was looking forward to helping her mother, a week was really going to stretch out if she didn’t have a working smart phone.

Squinting in the bright sunlight, Kat read a message sent by Haley, her roommate back in New York. The text must have come in during the train ride, before Kat had slipped out of range. OMG, said the text. A + S r here. “A,” Adam. The boyfriend of three years whom Kat had sent packing one week before, after discovering his side relationship with Selene Johnson. That would be “S,” the corp’s newest phenom dancer.

Haley had sent another message, five minutes later. 2 gross.

And a third one, five minutes after that. Hands all over.

All over. Right. Kat and Adam were all over. Adam hadn’t had the decency to admit what was going on with Selene. Not even when Kat showed him the silk panties she’d found beneath his pillow—panties that she had definitely not left behind. Panties that Selene must have intended Kat to find.

Even now, Kat swallowed hard, trying to force her feelings past the raw, empty space in the middle of her chest. She had honestly believed she and Adam were meant for each other. She had thought that he alone understood her, believed in all the crazy sacrifices she had to make as a dancer. He was the first guy—the only guy—she had ever gotten involved with, the only one who had seemed worth sacrificing some of her carefully allocated time and energy.

How could Kat have been so wrong? In reality, Adam had just been waiting for the next younger, more fit, more flexible dancer to come along. Kat hated herself for every minute she had invested in their broken relationship, every second she had stolen from her true focus: her dancing career. She closed her eyes, and once again she could see that slinky thong in Adam’s bed.

“2 gross” was right.

Kat dropped her useless cell phone into her purse and wiped her palms against her jet-black jeans, feeling the afternoon sun shimmer off the denim. At least her hair was up, off her neck in this heat. Small mercy. She started to rummage deep in her bag, digging for her wallet. A place like Eden Falls had to have pay phones somewhere. She could call her mother, figure out where their wires had crossed. Reach out to her cousin Amanda, if she needed to. Amanda was always good for a ride, whenever Kat made one of her rare weekend appearances.

Before she could find a couple of quarters, though, a huge silver pickup truck rolled to a stop in the parking lot. The Harmon woman smiled as she held out her thumb, pretending to hitch a ride. The driver—another Harmon, by the broad set of his shoulders, by his shock of chestnut hair—laughed as he walked around the front of his truck. He gave his sister a bear hug, swinging her around in a circle that swept her feet off the dusty asphalt. The woman whooped and punched at his shoulder, demanding to be set down. The guy obliged, opening the truck’s passenger door before he hefted her huge suitcase into the vehicle’s gleaming bed.

He was heading back to the driver’s side when he noticed Kat. “Hey!” he called across the small lot, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Kat, right? Kat Morehouse?”

Startled by the easy note of recognition in the man’s voice, Kat darted a glance to his face, really studying him for the first time. No. It couldn’t be. There was no possible way Rye Harmon was the first guy she was seeing, here in Eden Falls. He started to walk toward her, and Kat started to forget the English language.

But those were definitely Rye Harmon’s eyes, coal black and warm as a panther’s flank. And that was Rye Harmon’s smile, generous and kind amid a few days’ worth of unshaved stubble. And that was Rye Harmon’s hand, strong and sinewy, extended toward her in a common gesture of civil greeting.

Kat’s belly completed a fouetté, flipping so rapidly that she could barely catch her breath.

Rye Harmon had played Curly in the high school production of Oklahoma the year Kat had left for New York. Kat had still been in middle school, too young to audition for the musical. Nevertheless, the high school drama teacher had actually recruited her to dance the part of Laurey in the show’s famous dream sequence. The role had been ideal for a budding young ballerina, and Kat had loved her first true chance to perform. There had been costumes and makeup and lights—and there had been Rye Harmon.

Rye had been the star pitcher on the high school baseball team, with a reasonable baritone voice and an easy manner that translated well to the high school auditorium stage. Sure, he didn’t know the first thing about dancing, but with careful choreography, the audience never discovered the truth. Week after week, Kat had nurtured a silly crush on her partner, even though she knew it could never amount to anything. Not when she was a precocious middle school brat, and he was a high school hero. Not when she had her entire New York career ahead of herself, and he was Eden Falls incarnate—born, bred and content to stay in town forever.

In the intervening years, Kat had danced on stages around the world. She had kissed and been kissed a thousand times—in ballets and in real life, too. She was a grown, competent, mature woman, come back to town to help her family when they needed her most.

But she was also the child who had lived in Eden Falls, the shy girl who had craved attention from the unattainable senior.

And so she reacted the way a classically trained New York ballerina would act. She raised her chin. She narrowed her eyes. She tilted her head slightly to the right. And she said, “I’m sorry. Have we met?”

Rye stopped short as Kat Morehouse pinned him with her silver-gray eyes. He had no doubt that he was looking at Kat and not her twin, Rachel. Kat had always been the sister with the cool reserve, with the poised pride, even before she’d left Eden Falls. When was that? Ten years ago? Rye had just graduated from high school, but he’d still been impressed with all the gossip about one of Eden Falls’s own heading up to New York City to make her fortune at some fancy ballet school.

Of course, Rye had seen plenty of Kat’s sister, Rachel, around town over the past decade. Done more than see her, six years ago. He’d actually dated her for three of the most tempestuous weeks of his life. She’d been six months out of high school then, and she had flirted with him mercilessly, showing up at job sites, throwing pebbles at his window until he came down to see her in the middle of the night. It had taken him a while to figure out that she was just bent on getting revenge against one of Rye’s fraternity brothers, Josh Barton. Barton had dumped her, saying she was nuts.

It had taken Rye just a few weeks to reach the same conclusion, then a few more to extricate himself from Rachel’s crazy, melodramatic life. Just as well—a couple of months later, Rachel had turned up pregnant. Rye could still remember the frozen wave of disbelief that had washed over him when she told him the news, the shattering sound of all his dreams crashing to earth. And he could still remember stammering out a promise to be there for Rachel, to support his child. Most of all, though, he recalled the searing rush of relief when Rachel laughed, told him the baby was Josh’s, entitled to its own share of the legendary Barton fortune.

Rye had dodged a bullet there.

If he had fathered Rachel’s daughter—what was her name? Jessica? Jennifer?—he never could have left town. Never could have moved up to Richmond, set up his own contracting business. As it was, it had taken him six years after that wake-up call, and he still felt the constant demands of his family, had felt it with half a dozen girlfriends over the years. With a kid in the picture, he never could have fulfilled his vow to be a fully independent contractor by his thirtieth birthday.

He’d been well shed of Rachel, six years ago.

And he had no doubt he was looking at Kat now. Rachel and Kat were about as opposite as any two human beings could be—even if they were sisters. Even if they were twins. Kat’s sharp eyes were the same as they’d been in middle school—but that was the only resemblance she bore to the freakishly good dancer he had once known.

That Kat Morehouse had been a kid.

This Kat Morehouse was a woman.

She was a full head taller than when he’d seen her last. Skinnier, too, all long legs and bare arms and a neck that looked like it was carved out of rare marble. Her jet-black hair was piled on top of her head in some sort of spiky ponytail, but he could see that it would be long and straight and thick, if she ever let it down. She was wearing a trim black T-shirt and matching jeans that looked like they’d been specially sewn in Paris or Italy or one of those fashion places.

And she had a bright blue walking boot on her left leg—the sort of boot that he’d worn through a few injuries over the years. The sort of boot that itched like hell in the heat. The sort of boot that made it a pain to stand on the edge of a ragged blacktop parking lot in front of the Eden Falls train station, waiting for a ride that was obviously late or, more likely, not coming at all.

Rye realized he was still standing there, his hand extended toward Kat like he was some idiot farm boy gawking at the state fair Dairy Princess. He squared his shoulders and wiped his palms across the worn denim thighs of his jeans. From the ice in Kat’s platinum gaze, she clearly had no recollection of who he was. Well, at least he could fix that.

He stepped forward, finally closing the distance between them. “Rye,” he said by way of introduction. “Rye Harmon. We met in high school. I mean, when I was in high school. You were in middle school. I was Curly, in Oklahoma. I mean, the play.”

Yeah, genius, Rye thought to himself. Like she really thought you meant Oklahoma, the state.

Kat hadn’t graduated from the National Ballet School without plenty of acting classes. She put those skills to good use, flashing a bright smile of supposedly sudden recognition. “Rye!” she said. “Of course!”

She sounded fake to herself, but she suspected no one else could tell. Well, maybe her mother. Her father. Rachel, if she bothered to pay attention. But certainly not a practical stranger like Rye Harmon. A practical stranger who said, “Going to your folks’ house? I can drop you there.” He reached for her overnight bag, as if his assistance was a forgone conclusion.

“Oh, no,” she protested. “I couldn’t ask you to do that!” She grabbed for the handle of the roller bag as well, flinching when her fingers settled on top of his. What was wrong with her? She wasn’t usually this jumpy.

She wasn’t usually in Eden Falls, Virginia.

“It’s no problem,” Rye said, and she remembered that easy smile from a decade before. “Your parents live three blocks from mine—from where I’m taking Lisa.”

Kat wanted to say no. She had been solving her own problems for ten long years.

Not that she had such a great track record lately. Her walking boot was testament to that. And the box of things piled in the corner of her bedroom, waiting for cheating Adam to pick up while she was out of town.

But what was she going to do? Watch Rye drive out of the parking lot, and then discover she had no change at the bottom of her purse? Or that the pay phone—if there even was a pay phone—was out of order? Or that no one was at the Morehouse home, that Mike had some doctor’s appointment Susan had forgotten when they made their plans?

“Okay,” Kat said, only then realizing that her hand was still on Rye’s, that they both still held her suitcase. “Um, thanks.”

She let him take the bag, hobbling after him to the gleaming truck. Lisa shifted over on the bench seat, saying, “Hey,” in a friendly voice.

“Hi,” Kat answered, aware of the Northern inflection in her voice, of the clipped vowel sound that made her seem like she was in a hurry. She was in a hurry, though. She’d come all the way from New York City—almost five hundred miles.

It wasn’t just the distance, though. It was the lifetime. It was the return to her awkward, unhappy childhood, where she’d always been the odd one out, the dancer, the kid who was destined to move away.

She’d left Eden Falls for a reason—to build her dream career. Now that she was back in the South, she felt like her life was seizing up in quicksand. She was being forced to move slower, trapped by convention and expectation and the life she had not led.

Determined to regain a bit of control, she turned back to the truck door, ready to tug it closed behind her. She was startled to find Rye standing there. “Oh!” she said, leaping away. The motion tumbled her purse from her lap to her feet. Silently cursing her uncharacteristic lack of grace, she leaned forward to scoop everything back inside her bag. Rye reached out to help, but she angled her shoulder, finishing the embarrassing task before he could join in.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he drawled. He reached inside the truck and passed her the seat belt, pulling it forward from its awkward position over her right shoulder.

“You didn’t!” But, of course, he had. And if she made any more protest, he might take more time to apologize, time she did not want to waste. It was all well and good for him to take all day on a run to the train station. What else could he have to do in slow-paced Eden Falls? But she was there to help her family, and she might as well get started. She pulled the seat belt across her chest, settling it in its slot with the precision of a brain surgeon. “I’m fine. And if you don’t mind, I’m sort of in a hurry.”

She almost winced when she realized how brusque she sounded.

Recognizing dismissal when he heard it, Rye shut the door carefully. He shook his head as he walked around the front of his truck. Ten years had passed, but he still remembered Kat’s precise attention to detail. Kat Morehouse had been a determined girl. And she had clearly grown into a formidable woman.

Formidable. Not exactly the type he was used to dating. Certainly not like Rachel had been, with her constant breaking of rules, pushing of boundaries. And not like the sweet, small-town girls he had dated here in Eden Falls.

His brothers teased him, saying he’d moved to Richmond because he needed a deeper dating pool. Needed to find a real woman—all the girls in Eden Falls knew him too well.

He hadn’t actually had time for a date in the past year—not since he’d been burned by Marissa. Marissa Turner. He swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth as he thought of the woman who had been his girlfriend for two long years. Two long years, when he had torn apart his own life plans, forfeited his fledgling business, all to support her beauty salon.

Every time Rye mentioned making it big in Richmond, Marissa had thrown a fit. He had wanted her to be happy, and so he had circumscribed all of his dreams. It was easier, after all. Easier to stay in Eden Falls. Easier to keep doing the same handyman work he’d been doing all of his adult life. At least Marissa was happy.

Until she got some crazy-ass chance to work on a movie out in Hollywood, doing the hair for some leading man hunk. Marissa had flown cross-country without a single look back, not even bothering to break up with Rye by phone. And he had been left utterly alone, feeling like a fool.

A fool who was two years behind on his business plan.

But not anymore. With Marissa gone, Rye had finally made the leap, moving up to Richmond, finding the perfect office, hunting down a tolerable apartment. He was finally moving on with his life, and it felt damn good to make choices for himself. Not for his family. Not for his girlfriend. For him.

At least, most of the time.

Lisa was chatting with Kat by the time he settled into the driver’s seat. “It’s no problem, really,” his sister was saying. “Rye already came down from Richmond to get me. Things are crazy at home—Mama’s out West visiting her sister, and Daddy’s busy with the spring planting. Half my brothers and sisters sent up a distress call to get Rye home for the weekend. He’s walking dogs for our sister Jordana—she’s out of town for a wedding, so she can’t take care of her usual clients. At least he could fit taxi service in before coaching T-ball practice this afternoon, filling in for Noah.”

Listening to Lisa’s friendly banter, Rye had to shake his head. It was no wonder he had moved all the way to Richmond to make his business work. Of course, he loved his family, loved the fact that they all looked to him to fix whatever was wrong. But here in Eden Falls, there was always a brother who needed a hand, a sister with one more errand, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends—people who pulled him away from his business.

He’d only been living in Richmond for a month, and he’d already come back to Eden Falls a half-dozen times. He promised himself he’d get more control over his calendar in the weeks to come.

Lisa nudged his ribs with a sharp elbow. “Right? Tell Kat that it’s no big deal, or she’s going to get out at the traffic light and walk home from there!”

Rye couldn’t help but smile. He could grouse all he wanted about being called home, but he loved his family, loved the fact that they needed him. “It’s no big deal,” he said dutifully, and then he nodded to Kat. “And you shouldn’t be walking anywhere on that boot. Broken foot?”

Kat fought against her automatic frown. “Stress fracture.”

“Ow. Our brother Logan had one of those, a couple of years back. He plays baseball for the Eagles. It took about a month for his foot to heal. A month until he could get back to playing, anyway.”

Kat started to ask if Logan pitched, like Rye had done, but then she remembered she wasn’t supposed to have recognized Rye. She settled for shrugging instead and saying, “The doctors say I’ve got about a month to wait, myself. I figured it was a good time to come down here. Help out my parents.”

Rye gave her a sympathetic glance. “I was at their house a few months ago, to install a handheld shower for your father. How’s he doing?”

“Fine.” Kat curved her lips into the smile she had mastered in her long-ago acting classes. Her father was fine. Susan was fine. Jenny was fine. Everyone was fine, and Kat would be on a northbound train in less than a week.

“Colon cancer can be rough.” Rye’s voice was filled with sympathy.

“They say they caught it in time.” Kat was afraid to voice her fears—Mike’s recovery had taken longer than anyone had expected. He’d been in and out of the hospital for six months, and now, with pneumonia…

At least Rye seemed to believe her. He didn’t ask any more questions. Instead, he assured her, “Everyone’s been real worried about them. Just last week, my mother had me bring by some of her chicken almond casserole. It’ll get your father back on his feet in no time.”

Kat couldn’t remember the last time she’d cooked for a sick friend. Oh well. Things were different down here. People had different ways to show they cared. She tried to recall the lessons in politeness that her mother had drilled into her, years before. “I’m sure it was delicious. It was kind of you to bring it by.”

Rye wondered if he’d somehow made Kat angry—she sounded so stiff. Her hands were folded in her lap, her fingers wrapped around each other in perfect precision, like coils of rope, fresh from the factory. She sat upright like a soldier, keeping her spine from touching the back of her seat. Her eyes flashed as they drove past familiar streets, and each intersection tightened the cords in her throat.

And then it came to him: Kat wasn’t angry. She was frightened.

One thing Rye had learned in almost thirty years of dealing with siblings and cousins was how to ease the mind of someone who was afraid. Just talk to them. It was easy enough to spin out a story or two about Eden Falls. He might have moved away, but he could always dredge up something entertaining about the only real home he’d ever known.

He nodded to the row of little shops they were passing. “Miss Emily just closed up her pet store.”

Kat barely glanced at the brightly painted storefront, and for a second he thought she might not take the bait. Finally, though, she asked, “What happened?”

“She couldn’t stand to see any of the animals in cages. She sold off all the mice and gerbils and fish, and then she took in a couple of litters of kittens. She gave them free rein over the whole shop. Problem was, she fell in love with the kittens too much to sell them. If she took money, she couldn’t be sure the animals were going to a good home. So instead of selling them, she gave them away to the best owners she could find. In the end, she decided it didn’t make much sense to pay rent. Anyone who wants a kitten now just goes up to her house and knocks on the front door.”

There. That was better. He actually caught a hint of a smile on Kat’s lips. Lisa, of course, was rolling her eyes, but at least his sister didn’t call him a liar. As long as he was on a roll, he nodded toward the elementary school they were passing. “Remember classes there? They had to skip the Christmas pageant last December because the boa constrictor in the fourth grade classroom got out. None of the parents would come see the show until the snake was found. The kids are going to sing ‘Jingle Bells’ for the Easter parade.”

Kat couldn’t help herself. She had to ask. “Did they ever find the snake?”

“He finally came out about a week ago. The janitor found him sunning himself on the parking lot, none the worse for wear. He was hungry, though. They used to feed him mice from Miss Emily’s.”

Kat wrinkled her nose, but she had to laugh. She had to admit—she couldn’t imagine the National Ballet School having similar problems. And they would never have postponed a performance, snake or no snake, especially a holiday showcase like a Christmas pageant.

Rye eased up to the curb in front of her parents’ house, shoving the gearshift into Park. He hopped out of the truck as Kat said goodbye to Lisa. She joined him by the deep bed. “Thank you,” she said. And somehow, she meant to thank him for more than the ride. She meant to tell him that she appreciated the effort he had made, the way that he had tried to distract her from her worry.

“My pleasure,” he said, tipping an imaginary hat. “Harmon Contracting is a full-service provider.” He hefted her suitcase out of the truck, shrugging it into a more comfortable position as he nodded for Kat to precede him up the driveway.

“Oh, I can get that,” she said, reaching for the bag.

“It’s no problem.”

“Please,” she said, carving an edge onto the word. She’d learned long ago how to get her way in the bustling streets of New York. She knew the precise angle to hold her shoulders, the exact line to set her chin. No one would dare argue with her when she’d strapped on her big city armor.

Rye recognized that stance; he’d seen it often enough in his own sisters, in his mother. Kat Morehouse was not going to give in easily.

And there really wasn’t any reason to push the matter. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have a thousand other things to do that afternoon—the dog walking Lisa had mentioned, and the T-ball practice, but also phone calls back to Richmond, trying to keep his fledgling business alive while he was on the road.

And yet, he really didn’t want to leave Kat here, alone. If he turned his head just a little, he could still see the girl she’d been, the stubborn, studious child who had defied convention, who had done what she wanted to do, had carved out the life she wanted, never letting little Eden Falls stop her in her tracks.

But there would be time enough to see Kat again. She wasn’t going to disappear overnight, and he was in town for the whole weekend. He could stop by the next day. Think of some excuse between now and then. He extended the handle on the roller bag, turning it around to make it easier for Kat to grasp. “Have it your way,” he said, adding a smile.

“Thanks,” Kat said, and she hustled up the driveway, relying on the roller bag to disguise the lurch of her booted foot. Only when she reached the door did she wonder if she should go back to Rye’s truck, thank him properly for the ride. After all, he’d done her a real favor, bringing her home. And she wouldn’t mind taking one last look at those slate-black eyes, at the smooth planes of his face, at his rugged jaw….

She shook her head, though, reminding herself to concentrate. She was through with men. Through with distractions that just consumed her time, that took her away from the things that were truly important, from the things that mattered. She might have been an idiot to get involved with Adam, but at least she could translate her disappointing experience into something useful.

Waving a calculatedly jaunty farewell toward Rye and Lisa, Kat threw back her shoulders, took a deep breath and turned the doorknob. Of course the front door was unlocked; it always was. In New York, Kat had to work three different locks on the door of the apartment she shared with Haley, every single time she went in or out. Things were simpler here in Eden Falls. Easier. Safer.

Boring.

Pushing down her automatic derogatory thoughts about the town that had kept her parents happy for their entire lives, Kat stepped over the threshold. And then she caught her breath at the scene inside the old brick rambler.

Chaos. Utter, complete chaos.

A radio blasted from the kitchen, some mournful weatherman announcing that the temperature was going to top ninety, a new record high for the last day in March. A teakettle shrieked on the stovetop, piercing the entire house with its urgent demand. In the living room, a television roared the jingle from a video game, the same four bars of music, over and over and over again. From the master bedroom, a man shouted, “Fine! Let me do it, then!” and a shrill child’s voice repeated, “I’m helping! I’m helping!”

All of a sudden, it seemed pretty clear how Susan had forgotten to meet Kat at the train station.

Resisting the urge to hobble back to the curb and beg Rye to take her to a motel out on the highway—or better yet, back to the train station so she could catch the two-fifteen northbound Clipper—Kat closed the front door behind her. She pushed her little suitcase into the corner of the foyer and dropped her purse beside it. She headed to the kitchen first, grabbing a pot holder from the side of the refrigerator where her mother had kept them forever. The kettle stopped screaming as soon as she lifted it from the heat. The blue flame died immediately when Kat turned the knob on the stove. She palmed off the radio before the local news break could end.

Next stop was the living room, where Kat cast the television into silence, resorting to pushing buttons on the actual set, rather than seeking out the missing remote control. A scramble of half-clothed Barbie dolls lay on the floor, pink dresses tangled with a rose-colored sports car that had plunged into a dry fuchsia swimming pool. A handful of board games was splattered across the entire mess—tiny cones from Sorry mixing with Jenga rods and piles of Monopoly money. Kat shook her head—there would be plenty of time to sort that mess later.

And that left the voices coming from the master bedroom, down the hallway. Kat could make out her father’s gruff tones as he insisted someone hand him something immediately. The whining child—it had to be Jenny—was still saying “I’m helping,” as if she had to prove her worthiness to someone. And Kat surprised herself by finding tears in her eyes when she heard a low murmur—her calm, unflappable mother, trying to soothe both her husband and her granddaughter.

Kat clumped down the hall, resenting the awkward walking boot more than ever. When she reached the doorway, she was surprised by the tableau before her.

A hospital bed loomed between her parents’ ancient double mattress and the far wall. Mike lay prone between the raised bars, but he craned his neck at a sharp angle. He held out a calloused hand, demanding that a tiny raven-haired child hand over the controls to the bed. The girl kept pressing buttons without any effect; she obviously did not understand how to make the bed work. Susan was framed in the doorway to the bathroom, her gray face cut deep with worry lines as she balanced a small tray, complete with a glass of water and a cup of pills.

“Kat!” Susan exclaimed. “What time—?”

“I caught a ride home with Rye Harmon,” Kat said, wrestling to keep her gait as close to normal as possible. The last thing she wanted was for her mother to fuss over a stupid stress fracture. Not when Susan obviously had so much else to worry about.

Kat plucked the bed controls from her niece’s hand and passed the bulky plastic block to her father. She settled firm fingers on the child’s shoulder, turning her toward the doorway and the living room. “Thank you, Jenny,” she said, pushing pretend warmth into the words. “You were a big help. Now there are some toys out there, just waiting for you to straighten up.”

Jenny sighed, but she shuffled down the hallway. Kat leaned down to brush a kiss against her father’s forehead, easing an arm beneath his shoulders as he started to manipulate the mechanical bed, fighting to raise himself into a seated position. When she was certain he was more comfortable, Kat said, “Come sit down, Mama.” She heard the hard New York edge on her words, and she smiled to soften her voice. “Why don’t you rest, and let me take care of that for a while?”

Even as Susan settled on the edge of the double bed, Kat heard the distant whistle of the Clipper, the New York-bound train, leaving town for the day. The wild, lonesome sound immediately made her think about Rye Harmon, about how he had offered to come inside, to help. He’d scooped her up from the train station like a knight in shining armor—a friendly, easygoing knight whom she’d known all her life. Kat blinked and she could see his kind smile, his warm black eyes. She could picture the steady, sturdy way he had settled her into his truck.

She shook her head. She didn’t have time to think about Rye. Instead, she handed her father his medicine, taking care to balance her weight, keeping her spine in alignment despite her cursed walking boot. She had come to Eden Falls to help out her family, to be there for Susan and Mike. And as soon as humanly possible, she was heading back to New York, and the National Ballet Company and the life she had worked so hard to attain. She didn’t have time for Rye Harmon. Rye Harmon, or anything else that might delay her escape from Eden Falls.